Me: Wayne Hope
My (first) car: 1976 FIAT 131s
Bought: (secondhand) 1980
This strange little Italian rust-bucket was my ticket out of Wantirna.
I lived in the outer suburbs of Melbourne in a place called Wantirna. It’s far enough east that it causes you from the age of about 14 onwards to start dreaming of your 18th birthday and the moment you can get your license and joyfully drive in a direction other than Wantirna.
From about 14 I started saving money, desperately. So, on my 18th birthday at eight o’clock in the morning I got my license and very soon after that I arranged to go down to Bib Stillwell Ford – I was going out with a girl and her father was a salesman there. He took me to the back, where their trade-ins were – I was certainly getting nothing from the front section of the car lot because I had $2625 to spend.
I was introduced to another sales guy and when I announced my price he said, “Well, that narrows it down to…that car.” That was how my love of Italian cars started: based on a price-point. I looked over and there was this kind of rust-coloured 131S that I absolutely loved. I bought it on the spot and drove it non-stop for at least 10 hours.
I drove it non-stop for at least 10 hours.
It had a great sound to it, that little kind of purr-sound of the 1600 motor. It was good, it was zippy, it was a five-speed and I loved the drive. It got a little wobbly over the years, the suspension kind of got a bit of a ‘float’ to it if you got up to about 110/115kmph. But it had a temperament, so you knew ‘these are the boundaries’ – you had to learn and appreciate.
It was in the era where you went straight out and got an Alpine stereo and I remember spending a lot of time in those audio car shops eyeing off this Alpine system that I eventually put in and spent much of the weekend filing away the inside to make it fit… insisting that it would fit.
It had a black leather interior and it had split in the sun, unfortunately, so I was trying to come up with nifty ways to fix it. I had to put seat covers on the front – sheepskin, of course – and on the back ledge there was that bubbling, peeling look that I had to counter with various amounts of duct tape, which then melted in the sun and created this sticky, duct tape feeling across the back.
It was a great car. I had it right through to the end of uni – I think I had it for four years. And I drove a lot. I remember I had a job in this duty-free shop at the base of the Victoria Hotel in Little Collins Street, which is on quite a slant, and I parked out the front one day and went in to work and a guy came in screaming, “Who owns the fucken’ FIAT?!” And I remember saying, “Ah…I think that’s me.” And I went out and unbeknownst to me the handbrake cable had snapped – and I hadn’t parked it in gear, which I always did – and it had rolled down Little Collins Street. My first view of it was ploughed into the back of a Carmen Ghia, which belonged to that man. This sturdy, box-fronted little FIAT had very little damage to it but that beautiful rear end of the Carmen Ghia was pushed in.
I eventually sold the 313 privately to a person who owned another FIAT who just wanted to use it for parts. He was in a great position and I knew it and he said, “You know, I’m the only person who’s going to turn up, ever. So, you say you want $1000? I’ll give you $200.” Or $250, it may have been, to take it for parts. I took what I could get at the time.
I miss the sound of the FIAT, that purring noise and I miss that thrill, that feeling I got every time I got in it for that first year – that thrill of escape and the pleasure that you had with independence. I associate it with that – with independence. I was able to get out. This strange little Italian rust-bucket was my ticket out of Wantirna.
Wayne Hope is the producer/director of ABC1’s Upper Middle Bogan and upcoming comedy feature, Now Add Honey.
The 131 replaced the much-loved and well-engineered 124, helping to bring FIAT into the modern age.
Pros: One of the last rear-drive FIATs sold in Australia the 131 was developed in the hills behind Turin in Italy, which accounts for its excellent braking and handling. A lusty, overhead cam engine and relatively small size gave it a great power-to-weight ratio. The car performed consistently well at rallies.
Cons: Although it was made in Italy, thanks to a deal FIAT did with the communist government in Russia the car was built using lower-grade Russian steel. The steel was more easily prone to rust, which became a real problem for the vehicle in inclement weather and coastal environments like ours.
The verdict: Of the 1.5 million produced for a decade from 1974 only a few hundred made it to Australia. Hence, these fun-to-drive cars are eminently collectable.
With thanks to Byron Mathioudakis from Wheels Magazine and www.goauto.com.au.